Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Anniversary muse, muse ...

I started thinking about this "part two" as soon as was "An Unexpected Anniversary Muse" was published. That post was incubated in the aftermath of having gone into night waters as Deb mentioned. The person needing a little help falls into the category of young, poor, somewhat trapped, with few options and an uncertain future. On that night she chose to cope by drinking it all away. For just a few brief minutes that choice put her at a serious amount of risk. Though the risk to me was slight, and I was glad we were around to offer a hand, I wasn't expecting to go night swimming in a tidal river to pluck a person I had talked with exactly once, out of the waves. It kind of put the whole issue of people struggling to get along on the front burner as her situation is by no means unique or unusual "out here". But I knew there was another side to the story I would have to wrestle with, for this life is different than others and labels are slippery things when soaked in water.

Over the course of our summer here in southern FL we have made friends with more than a few in the same boat as our night swimmer. (Sorry.) Actually, they were spread out over four or five different boats. All of them are good people. All of them willing to help another in any way they could, yet all of them struggling to keep going themselves. They talk of how hard it is. They are tired and frustrated, not sure where or how some particular problem can get handled. They are often ill, some with chronic symptoms unresolved since health care is a real issue for much of the cruising community. I can't help but think of them as living poor, because they are. But I suspect they would shy away from that label. "Broke" might be their choice. "Hurting a bit" if you ask how they are doing. Most will admit to having to "fill the kitty" before they can go any further. (That means flat broke, by the way.) To me "poor" is an economic label, having nothing to do with the spirit. But maybe to others it means something else.

I never really expected this to be such a large part of the cruising community, and it may not be as large as it looks to me. For the obvious reason marinas and mooring fields have noticeably fewer struggling boats hanging around. It is the same in the Islands. Here, in America's anchorages, are where those hanging near the edge hang out the most. It is where Kintala hangs out as well and many struggling through each day are friends of mine now. Come out here and they will be friends of yours as well. At least they should be.

But then things get a bit more complicated. Most of the cruisers that we know (including ourselves) are people with very few belongings. We get tired and frustrated, and are sometimes not sure how some particular problem can get handled. We have no permanent address, live off the power grid, dwell the fringe of normal society, mobile and uncommitted with, it must be admitted, our own collection of eccentricities. There is very little difference between the way my poor friends live, and the way we live.

But we are of the Kings and Queens in the world. There is no desire for belongings or a permanent address. We don't need the power grid and are committed to living light and free. We wander at will through whatever part of the world we fancy. As for eccentricities, we revel in them. We are not really like “normal” people, and that is more than fine. And my friends, those whom I think of as living poor, who have described themselves as just "hurting a bit", would say the exact same thing. They would like to not be "hurting a bit". But if that doesn't happened they are still of the Kings and Queens in the world. They are still cruisers. And they are still friends.

Not hurting as much might mean trading up to a slightly nicer boat, maybe new solar panels, a water maker, some new rigging, an additional sail. They might get an engine fixed or a refrigerator running, maybe add a bit of new navigation gear. Or maybe not. Mostly they would not be worried that any given day might be the day that they lose their grip and fall into the abyss. Smiling would come a bit easier with problems a lot less daunting. And that, to me, is the difference between poor and not poor. It is the difference between being able to move and move safely, or not being able to move at all. It is the difference between worrying about how to keep the boat functional, and just keeping the boat going as a matter of routine. Is is the difference between feeling threatened, and feeling capable.

So I'll let my previous post stand as is. There are a lot of struggling people “out here”, and they are very, very exposed. Being that exposed is a tough way to live. They know it. They live with it. They would rather they didn't have to, but they take a fierce pride in managing it as well. If one comes this way and finds themselves "hurting a bit", but lacks that fierce pride? The edge is going to be very hard to hold onto.

Veterans and young people do seem to have an especially difficult time keeping ahead of the poverty curve. Should they venture this way they need to be especially careful to be prepared. But, at the same time, the standards are different for those "out here" than for those living as land dwellers. "Poor” means a different thing to people who care mostly about what they can do, where they can go, and what they can experience. And care little about the things they might own.

If one is lucky enough to come this way without much of a struggle, be pleased. It takes a lot of work, a lot of planning, and a bit of luck, to pull that one off. Anyone who has done it can take their own bit of pride in choosing a different way. The beaches, sundowners, clear waters, and warm temperatures are well and truly earned. It is a good life.

But it doesn't always work out that way.

Monday, October 20, 2014

An unexpected anniversary muse ...

The cruising life enshrined in the glossy pages of sailing magazines and boat show halls usually involve nights on the hook in some of the world's most beautiful places. They are “near the edge” or “off the grid”, and it is grand living indeed. What they don't mention is that those are usually short visits made by people living something other than the life that, many of us who are cruising, live.

A large portion of those living here in long term, no-fee anchorages don't live near the edge. They are sitting on the edge with their feet dangling over the abyss. Many are over the edge, barely hanging on with bloodied fingernails. The crew of Kintala, by comparison, is sitting comfortably within view of the edge, hoping no more earthquakes trouble our world for a while.

Sailors take pride in “well founded boats”. There are not many of those around these anchored parts. Faded paint, decrepit teak, and torn canvas are the norm. Scavenged solar panels supplement noisy generators to keep the lights on and the food from spoiling. Decks are buried under cast off items that may prove useful in the future. There is very little money out here. That bit of dock line lying around cluttering up the place may look ratty and ready for discard, but next year it may be the best bit of line on the boat. Tossing it now may mean having to dig up the bucks to replace it later, and by later that hole might already be empty. Take a picture of a common "cruising boat".  Compare it to a picture of a shack in the poverty stricken Appalachian mountains.  The two will look remarkably similar.

To put it bluntly, the “This Old Boat” cruising community is a community largely trapped in poverty. This seems particularly true of two sub-groups of the cruising clan; veterans of America's never-ending love of wars, and young people.

Young people are especially vulnerable. Those who spend their 20s and early 30s “living the dream” are likely to find themselves locked in. For all of their worldly experience and independence, they have no solid footing. There are few skills the water dweller can trade to the land living for income. Some itinerant boat work in a yard, stray contract work here and there, maybe a few weeks of a minimum wage - part time schedule at a little place within walking distance of a dink landing sight, are what pass for “work” in the cruising world.  It isn't much, and there isn't much of it.  In addition the young cruiser likely has no social network that is “home” and lives outside the reach of America's expensive and limited version of health care. Unless very carefully considered, the choice to go cruising while young can easily become a permanent life of poverty.

Many dream of writing for pay to fund their lifestyle - the reason for all of these blogs perhaps.   Alas, even living modestly off of a keyboard is less likely than making the bush leagues in almost any big name sport, let alone the Big Show.  One must be an excellent word-smith and have access to good editing, with entertaining stories to tell or a keen eye for commentary. Even then one will be most likely have to remain content with writing for the love of art, not for the money.

Cruising is a simple lifestyle that doesn't take much to sustain. But food, boat parts, maintenance, health care, fuel, and travel expenses are mostly non-negotiable. Going from having little money to having no money is a small step financially, one that means going from a simple life to an impoverished one. Floating or fixed, living poor is living hard.

On land, poverty is institutionalized. The poor are born into poor neighborhoods, attend poor schools, suffer the indignities and harm of poor law enforcement, and only have access to poor food and even poorer health care. It is a social problem Americans simply don't care about enough to address. But poor people don't move onto cruising boats to escape poverty.

People living on a boat usually think they were making the choice to live modest and light. Cruisers don't start out living poor on a boat, they end up living poor on a boat, often the result of a string of bad personal decisions and/or unexpected personal or family responsibilities or tragedies. It is a risk of choosing this life that simply isn't mentioned very often. But it needs to be.

Some will insist that living poor is not, itself, a bad thing. They are welcome to their opinion.  But I doubt many of them are living poor, and by choice. Come “out here”, run out of funds, be anchored somewhere for months because there is no money to move, have no way back to land, and no options. Pick up a cruising magazine.  Look at the pictures.  See if that makes it any better.

That may sound like I am down on the “cruising life”.  That isn't true, though I am a bit down on the cruising media.  We love living this way. It is simple. It is modest. It takes very little from the planet but offers a lot for the heart in return.  If one wants to live well while living modestly, this is a good choice to make.  But we have been out here for a year now. Those living well outnumber those living hard, but there are more living hard then I ever expected. It is far easier to move from a good life to a difficult one than most will admit, and it can happen very, very, quickly.  No one will be out here long before they anchor next to someone struggling to get through each day.

Though this must be said as well: even those struggling, who wish it was easier, would still rather be struggling on the water than struggling on land.  If they would rather be living easier on land than struggling on the water, is a question no one asks ... and no one answers.  The fact is, once one is living hard on the water, it is damned difficult to get back to land without help.

Coming out here without thinking of how easily this good life can turn into a hard one, is a good way to find one's own story changing into something much different than what was expected.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A year in review

October 19, 2013 we were pulling out of Oak Harbor Marina in Pasadena, MD for our first ever day of cruising. One year ago today. Anniversaries always beg for summing up and analyzing, and I had grandiose plans of  giving you this great list of all the places we went this year, and how we spent 170 days in marinas (ouch), 73 days on mooring balls, 122 days on the anchor, and prior to leaving we spent 69 days in boatyards.

But then we found out that the Publix very close to here has a Redbox and we haven't watched any movies in forever since we never have enough bandwidth to actually use our Netflix.

And then we found out that watching movies in the cockpit with the sunset behind the screen is actually pretty cool, especially when accompanied by a Coconut Rum drink. And then...

...our more than slightly inebriated neighbor in the anchorage fell off her boat with no ladder to get back on and was in the process of drowning which required a slight break in our movie-watching so Tim could take an early evening swim.

Yup. Happy one year anniversary.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Yearly vacation ...

Kintala has been sitting in Middle River for a bit longer than two weeks. A span that, in my old life, amounted to a normal vacation. After this summer it feels a like a vacation hard earned. But we are slowly working our way back into the cruising life.

Vacation or no, at the moment I'm feeling a bit lost, struggling while trying to reset my days. There is still boat work to do. There is always boat work to do. But none of it is set against a deadline or threatening to do us in. Some days I don't do any boat projects at all, and it feels like playing hooky. A new part for the Merc showed up two days ago and still remains un-installed! (The old part is zip tied and working fine...does that even sound like me?) We take walks, listen to tunes, swim, work on Spanish, read and write, and watch the sunset blaze across the sky. We mosey over to Starbucks for coffee and Wi-Fi, can catch the $1 bus to the beach. Instead of boat work chewing up every ounce of energy I have to spend in a day, I'm back to doing boat workouts; resistance bands and isometrics in a gently swaying cockpit, breathing ocean air. How sweet is that? A cold front eased through. It is cool enough for sleeping under a light cover and drinking hot coffee in the morning.

How sweet it that!?

Via Facebook and blogs we are watching the herd make its way down the ICW. I have to admit to being glad we are not a part of the parade this fall. It is much better sitting here than it would be facing the Ditch and running from the cold. Our southbound friends should not be jealous though. If even a single hurricane or tropical storm had found its way to southern FL this past summer, it would not have been so good to be here, And we are not out of the woods quite yet. Hopefully our luck will hold just a couple of weeks more. If it does we will be sitting pretty just an easy day sail away from Biscayne Bay. As soon as the season is truly closed we will be heading that way. I'm feeling the need for some water I can see through while setting the hook in a white, sandy bottom. I needs me some time in No Name Harbor and some days spent with all of Kintala's canvas catching wind. Just the idea of spending several weeks sailing around the Bay, a place we know and are comfortable with, has me smiling.

This is the lifestyle we were looking for when we set off to go cruising. Unfortunately I'm still looking over my shoulder, waiting for the next impending disaster to darken the sky. There is no telling how long those shadows will linger. Maybe, given the relentless challenges that have filled this first year, shaking off the feeling that some new threat to our cruising life is lying just over the horizon, will take a long time. Knowing that we have managed each one that has come along so far, from the boat taking on water at Oak Harbor to the tussle that was The Bear, is kind of encouraging. But that knowledge is tempered by our being battered, bruised, and still not sure how much longer we can manage to keep going.

But right now we are living the good life. I plan on milking it for all it is worth for as long at it lasts.

We've been endlessly entertained by this guy practicing on a flyboard right in front of our boat the last 2 weeks.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The fix is in ...

Fixing things is a good thing. Maybe not as good a thing as designing a new thing to handle a thing that needs handled, but fixing is a good thing. I like fixing things. I like it more when I know what I did to fix a thing.

The tale has been told how the Merc for the Dink wouldn't merc at all, and right when the need to get off the dock was getting urgent. Flogging it over the course of two days included taking the carburetor off three times. Each time said carb was disassembled, cleaned, and carefully reassembled. After the third time the Merc struggled back into the land of the functioning. It wasn't doing a full merc, but it would merc enough to move the Dink, and that was all that was required to get Kintala off the dock.

So off we went.

Here in Middle River the Dink dock is some 400 yards or more from where the anchor is set. The only way to traverse that 400 yards, particularly against a flowing tide, meant getting the Merc running. That was a witch's brew of full choke, pull 'till it fired, WAY too many revs, no choke, shift, half choke before it died, add throttle - just a  little to WFO - no telling what would be needed, and hold on. An average of three tries was needed to get it all mixed together just right and end up with motivation, and the motivation would come on in a rush. (The reason to hold on.) It was better than paddling and far more exciting, but clearly additional fixing would soon be required.

I put off taking it apart again by hoping that running a tank full of gas juiced up with Sea Foam would chase away what ever little gremlin was still swimming around in the fuel system. I've never actually fixed anything by adding the magic potion, in spite of the claims on thousands of magic potion bottles. (STP, Octane Boost, Bars Liquid Aluminum and - my personal favorite - Marvel Mystery Oil.)  Give the snake oil salesmen their due and besides, avoiding having much needed bits fall to the bottom is more challenging when bouncing around in the middle of Middle River than it is when tied securely to a dock on New River. And if you think about it, hacking away on a Dink motor while bouncing around in the middle of an anchorage is a bit like sawing away at the branch on which one sits. Screwing up too badly means swimming to the parts store. The magic potion couldn't hurt. Maybe it would work.

Things did improve slightly over the course of a couple of days. Sometimes one could get to a partial merc with only two tries at the witch's brew. Clearly half-fixed wasn't fixed enough. We needed a full merc and the magic potion wasn't going to get us there.

This morning the carburetor came off for the fourth time. Once on the bench the same things were seen that were seen the first three times. The same things were done that were done the first three times. And during assembly the same things were checked. I would have loved to have seen, done, or checked something different; but it is a tiny, simple little carburetor with only so many parts.

The Merc is running as well as it has ever run.

Beats the hell out of me what I did to fix the thing.

But I'm glad I did it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Looking for the magic …

I am missing some of the magic that used to visit my life. There were wafts of it in the Islands, but the magic is a subtle thing, quiet, and easy to miss. Being in the Islands for the first time is exciting and a bit “busy”. I know they are less than 100 nm away, pretty low in the excitement category compared to crossing oceans and fetching up on a shore that knows or cares little about America. But the Islands are just far enough to make a retired old guy think he is doing something out-of-the-ordinary without actually risking too much, and there is enough buzz from the trip to make it hard for the first timer there to feel the magic. Though it got awful close when anchored in places like Great Sale Cay.

The Thing in PA put me in places where an entirely unexpected kind of magic touched my life. But it had a hard edge to it flowing, as it did, from the dark mystery that defines our human experience. Once back on board Kintala having Daughter Eldest and family around kept the door open. Grand kids always carry a hint of the magic and I felt brief touches. But they were light and quickly overwhelmed by the debacle that was The Bear.

Fact is, for the last many months Deb and I have simply been laboring just to keep going. If I stumbled across any magic I was too tired or too sore to notice. We did what we could and let go of the things that were simply too far a reach. No complaints, but it is hard to feel the magic in the midst of such a struggle.

For now Kintala is what she is, a dated rig modestly equipped. Inexpensive issues are within our reach, mostly bright work and up keep. Expensive modifications will just have to wait and she will remain a dated rig modestly equipped. But there is no reason she can't be a well maintained and pretty dated-rig-modestly-equipped. I doubt the magic cares. (Deb, by the way, is the only reason I know about the magic at all. Without her I would be a dullard clunking through life with listless eyes, wondering what all the fuss was about.)

We are off the dock now, back on the water and riding easy to anchor in a place we know and like. Soon the miles will be passing the keel while we visit and explore other places we know and like. The end of the year should bring a trip back to St. Louis to see those I miss most, anticipation already driving memories of the long weeks wrestling with The Bear far from my mind. After the visit we plan to find our way back to the Islands. We can live cheap there, maybe figure out a way to keep floating a little bit longer. And then a little bit longer after that.

Somewhere along the way I hope to find some magic once again.